Ending Homelessness Isn’t as Impossible as It Sounds

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It may be a little hard to remember the last time anyone in elected office in Britain spoke about anything other than Brexit. But it wasn't so long ago that all the parties agreed about the boldest policy Prime Minister Theresa May has announced in office so far: her promise to end homelessness.

The pledge to end street-sleeping, or what is known in the U.K. as "rough sleeping," by 2027 was included in all the major party election programs. May repeated it at a major speech in March in which she said the problem was a "source of national shame." So why is action proving so difficult?

Scores of cities around the world have programs to reduce homelessness, but pledges to end the problem are dismissed as unrealistic. There's a certain fatalism in public opinion about homelessness: It's right to seek its reduction, but politically acceptable, cost-effective options are limited.

That view is increasingly being challenged. According to a 491-page report released this week from the homeless charity Crisis, eradicating street homelessness in the U.K. is indeed attainable and, crucially, would deliver not just a moral victory but also considerable financial benefit. Yet that requires more action than a government with a Brexit-induced attention deficit disorder is likely to give.

The steady rise in homelessness in London and elsewhere in the U.K. is apparent to anyone living there. Even as countries with similar homeless rates have managed to reduce them, Britain has seen a 169 percent increase in the national tally of rough sleepers since 2010, with rates doubling in London. The number in England has risen for seven straight years. If current trends continue, there will be a doubling in the number of people sleeping on the streets in the next 25 years. That's without counting the many more homeless who are couch-surfing or in temporary accommodation.

The causes are well-known and complex: a shortage of inexpensive housing, high rates of addiction, mental health problems, and limited or overstretched support services. Changes in British welfare policy, and shoddy implementation, made it drastically harder for those on benefits to access private rentals, putting a further squeeze on public housing and leaving a growing number of people in temporary accommodations. 

The Crisis report argues that there is an evidence-based pathway to zero-homelessness. It calls for more -- a lot more -- housing that can be accessed by the homeless and highly vulnerable. Increasing the supply of inexpensive and public housing alone will not move people off the streets. The report advocates a shift in the philosophy of tackling homelessness -- one that is being rolled out in parts of the U.K., the U.S. and Scandinavia.

Often called Housing First -- after the program developed in New York in the 1990s -- it has undergone a number of iterations and permutations. Under a housing-led model, quick access to stable housing is treated as a basic right; there are no quid pro quos or ranking systems or complicate chutes-and-ladders-type processes that make the road from street to stable accommodation impossibly long and further demoralizing. The homeless are housed and then given access to a range of support services. A growing body of evidence from Finland, Denmark, Canada and elsewhere shows these programs get people into permanent housing and result in improved mental health; there are also lower instances of criminal behavior.  

Detractors have often argued that Housing First programs lead to cuts in funding to established shelters and entrench rather than end dependency. Crisis report author Matt Downie, speaking from Wales where he was presenting the report, says that doesn’t have to happen; the key is not simply to offer accommodation to the most desperate, complex cases, but to have solutions to those who are further up the ladder too -- perhaps teetering on the edge of homelessness or in unstable accommodation. 

Success also depends on having a network of services to help the rehoused.  The report recommends a great number of supporting policies, include offering preventive services to those who are most at risk. That makes a lot of sense. I heard hundreds of stories from homeless or vulnerable clients during years as a volunteer at the Cardinal Hume Center, a charity in central London that helps the homeless: Often it was a delayed benefits payment, a missed paycheck, an illness, a family crisis, a rogue landlord or some other temporary crisis that pushed people across the line from just-managing to desperate. Britain's social services are hugely stretched now. The perpetually crisis-ridden National Health Service is carrying a lot of the burden, something it was never designed for and isn't funded to do.

But are these solutions affordable? Crisis recruited PwC to evaluate the financials around their proposed measures. PwC, Downie says, made it clear when it pitched for the job that it would use the Treasury’s rules on measuring costs and benefits over time so that conclusions would withstand scrutiny. Local authorities in England alone spend more than 1.1 billion pounds ($1.47 billion) on housing the homeless. So the stakes here, quite apart from the moral dimension and the human toll, are not small. The PwC analysis concluded that the proposed measures would cost 19.3 billion pounds between 2018 and 2041. The changes, however, would deliver an estimated 53.9 billion pounds in savings, largely from declining need for temporary accommodation, health care and other services. 

Approaching the problem at the national level makes sense. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith wrote recently, homelessness in the U.S. is down overall, but that masks a regional shift in the problem, with Western states experiencing a sharp rise as many cities simply ship their homeless populations out. Downie acknowledges that making the case is more difficult in the U.S., where there is a less of a welfare net and social housing movement. But in Britain, it should be a no-brainer. “If you could reliably end the homelessness of 80 percent of the most complicated cases and someone offered you on a plate how to do that, if you were sensible you’d take that up,” he says. 

Those living in large cities where homelessness is a common sight are tempted to dismiss the idea that eradication is possible. Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula seems more likely. Maybe it doesn't have to be so far-fetched. And no major developed country has been bolder than Britain in setting the bar so high. Given the cross-party political support for the eradication pledge, it would be a shame if all the evidence-gathering and deep-thinking about the problem escaped the attention of those who can do something about it.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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